The Protection Racket

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"We only included people in this network if one person named the other and the other named him back," he recalls. In the center of that fatal version of connect the dots was a French-Canadian flight attendant named Gaetan Dugas who could be sexually linked with 40 of the first 248 gay men diagnosed with GRID in the United States.

In the network diagram presented to his colleagues, Darrow had designated Dugas as "O," which stood for a sexual contact who lived "Out of California." But his fellow scientists began referring to him as Patient Zero, a designation that would eventually lead to a widespread myth.

"There's a conventional wisdom that he started the whole epidemic, but that's not true," Darrow says. "Nobody said he was the first case. You had a few people in L.A. who had AIDS. They didn't have sex together, but they had sex with this guy, so he was important. He linked it. That was the whole idea of social networks, which I happened to know about then and is now a big thing in disease control."

Evidence that this was a sexually transmitted illness strongly suggested that a virus was at the heart of this new plague. "We tried to convince our colleagues, the medical community, and we were hoping we could convince the new administration that they had a real big problem on their hands."

How did that go? "Not well," Darrow mutters. "It's still not going well." The CDC had earned its reputation by researching epidemics and then bringing them under control with vaccines. "They were very successful with smallpox and polio," he says. "They were good at vaccine-preventable diseases. But dealing with condoms, sexual behavior — boy, that was going to be tough. Still is. Sex and morality and all that. It's very contentious. Politicians don't like to get involved in that kind of thing."

Darrow's job on the task force had been primarily researching the spread of the disease. But as the '80s ebbed on, the sociologist became impatient with the CDC's approach. Darrow implored his superiors for an aggressive approach to prevention. "I said, 'I'm glad to help you guys out, but there's a time when we're going to have to do something. We need to intervene. We need programs to discourage high-risk behavior.' The CDC people, they'd say, it's our job to do the research. It's up to someone else to do interventions and develop the public health programs."

The CDC did launch a series of public service announcements called America Responds to AIDS in 1987, but Darrow recalls arguing with CDC officials. "It's not for gay men, and it's gay men you have to worry about."

It wouldn't be until after Darrow got to FIU in 1994, however, that he'd actually get a crack at ground-level intervention.

Twelve women and three men sit around the horseshoe shape of dark brown folding tables in one of several English-language classes sponsored by Hispanic Unity, a Hollywood agency that aids Spanish-speaking immigrants. It's a Wednesday morning, and Spanish chatter from adjoining rooms seeps easily through the thin sliding doors that partition them off.

Lining the walls are charts chock full of pronouns, adjectives, conjunctions, and every other part of speech you can throw at English-language neophytes.

But for about an hour this morning, they won't be thinking about subject-verb agreement and the like as the instructor turns the class over to Magaly Alvarado, who, until funding cuts, was part of the Reach 2010 project. Dressed in a light-blue pants suit, Alvarado is in charge of the organization's HIV/AIDS education outreach program. She's accompanied by Teresa Hidalgo, a medical doctor with a stocky build and serious demeanor, who also works for Hispanic Unity.

Alvarado jots down the category, Origen, on the whiteboard in front of the class. "Where does HIV come from?" she asks in Spanish. The group quickly identifies homosexuals as the originators of the disease, and several argue that it all started when some men had sex with monkeys. As Alvarado gently dissects this myth, one student finally admits that, yes, the idea is fairly ridiculous once you really think about it. But that's what she's heard, she reiterates.

Origins of the disease aside, Alvarado learns that most students here, some middle-aged, don't understand the basics of how HIV is transmitted, that it is spread only by contact with infected blood, semen, breast milk, or vaginal secretions.

As she continues to talk about transmission of the virus, she sees panic in some faces over a subject they perhaps had given little thought to before.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson